Americans are quite sleep deprived these days, but what you might not know is all of that not sleeping could be affecting your mental well-being. Or, is it that your mental health is leading to sleepless nights and yawn-filled days? The data paints a picture: Nearly one in five Americans suffers from some kind of mental illness, according to data from the National Institute of Mental Health. Even more surprising, a whopping 50 to 80 percent of people living with typical psychiatric illnesses also report chronic sleep problems, compared to less than 20 percent of the general population.
Looking at the numbers, it seems clear that sleep and mental health are connected, but the question remains: How are they connected? Are sleep problems a cause of mental illness, or, rather, are they a symptom? To find out, and to learn more about the connection between sleep and mental health, we teamed up with Sleep Number. But hint: There isn’t necessarily a right or wrong answer.
Sleep issues can both cause and be a sign of depression.“Disordered sleep can be both a symptom and cause of psychiatric disorders,” says Dr. Ash Nadkarni, director of Digital Integrated Care and instructor at Harvard Medical School. “For instance, in major depressive disorder, problems with early morning awakenings can be a cardinal symptom,” she says. “Alternatively, insomnia has been shown in longitudinal studies to be a risk factor for both new onset and recurrent depression.”
Sleep is restorative. When you miss out on shut eye, some pretty crazy things go on in your body. Because sleep problems can be both a symptom and a cause of mental issues, like depression, those who suffer from both can fall into a vicious Catch-22. Their mental health influences their sleep habits, which influence their mental health. It’s like the chicken or the egg: Eventually, it’s hard to tell which came first.
However, some sleep issues are obvious symptoms of a mental health problem. Flo Leighton, a psychiatric nurse practitioner in New York City, says post-traumatic stress disorder and bipolar disorder are two examples of psychiatric illnesses that have side effects that disrupt normal sleep patterns.
On the flip side, some mental health disorders, like anxiety, can be triggered by insomnia. Sleeplessness can disrupt the levels of essential neurotransmitters in the brain, like serotonin and gamma-Aminobutyric acid (GABA), two important sleep regulators. When they are thrown out of whack, anxiety can rise.
“Because of these [chemical] disruptions, it makes sense that people who have a bad night’s sleep report things like having a harder time concentrating, not feeling ‘sharp,’ and generally being more easily stressed or irritable,” Leighton says.
Could controlled sleep deprivation be the solution?Hear us out on this one. With all the data backing up the connection between mental health and rest, the idea of dialing back those Zs as a way to improve your mood and well-being might seem counterintuitive. But new studies have found that chronotherapy can improve symptoms of depression.
“Chronotherapy is a way to reset your circadian rhythm,” Nadkarni says. “It involves changing the time you go to sleep and the time you get up, just a little bit, every day, until you’ve reset your sleeping and waking schedule to where you want it to be.”
Sounds easy enough, right?
When you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, your body releases melatonin ― a chemical that promotes sleep ― either too early or too late. Chronotherapy helps shift that melatonin release to just the time your body needs it, and can shift your mood in the process.
Try These Tricks For A Better Night’s Sleep, Tonight
1. Try Meditation
2. Take A Warm Bath
3. Ban Phones And Tablets Before Bed
4. Turn Down The Thermostat
Though more research is needed, initial studies seem to demonstrate the healing power of chronotherapy. One studyfound that 70 percent of participants with bipolar disorder (who did not have a history of drug resistance) “improved rapidly with sleep deprivation and early morning light,” and 57 percent felt better just nine months later. The second study included a combination of chronotherapy and antidepressants to treat patients with bipolar disorder. Some saw an alleviation of their depression symptoms after just 48 hours of treatment. For comparison, conventional antidepressants typically take two to eight weeks to work.
Though initial studies of the effects of chronotherapy and mental health appear positive, it’s important to remember that engaging in any kind of new health regimen without your doctor’s guidance isn’t advised. As an alternative, if you’re suffering from sleeplessness, opt for easy sleep solutions you can try tonight to catch more shut eye. Your brain will thank you.
By Brittany Nims
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